EASTHAM — If Aimee Eckman had not been politically active, the town might have established its own beach in 2008. And voters might never have adopted municipal water.
Eckman, who is seeking a fifth term on the select board in the May 16 election, has been at the center of two of the town’s most divisive battles. But that hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for being involved in town politics.
“People say it is a thankless job, but I don’t think so,” she says. “I have found if you do your homework people do appreciate it.”
Twenty years ago, residents began to campaign for a town beach on 26 acres of town-owned land in the Cape Cod National Seashore between Nauset Light and Coast Guard beaches. Eckman, a political newcomer who arrived in Eastham in 2002, opposed the plan and began recording select board meetings with help from the 16-year-old son of a friend.
The two would race to the Comcast cable station so the meetings could be aired on local-access television, she says. This was before all government meetings were regularly shown on TV. She did it because she did not think the select board, with several pro-beach members, was being fully transparent, she says.
Her side was not popular — not at first, anyway. The beach would have reserved 250 parking spaces for town residents. Eastham’s ocean beaches are all Seashore-owned and therefore accessible to everyone. Proponents raised $200,000 in private donations, according to a 2008 story in the Cape Cod Times.
The beach project went before voters three times for various phases of the plan. In 2007, after a two-thirds majority couldn’t be mustered to approve the project, Dick Anderson wrote a letter to the editor in the Cape Codder complaining about that two-thirds requirement. His side had been close. “Why are the wishes of 62 percent of us allowed to be held hostage by two women and a few of their followers who have their own agenda against the beach?” Anderson wrote.
The two women were Eckman and her wife, Johanna Stevens. They, and many others, argued that building the beach would mean massive clear-cutting of pristine forest.
The proposal died in 2008 when it did not receive town meeting support for a conservation restriction. The vote was 502 to 476.
Eckman has a habit of looking past the controversies that can come with getting involved. As a result of the debates that raged during the beach battles, the Seashore granted Eastham residents one-third of its Nauset Light Beach parking spaces and reserved 24 spots for locals at Coast Guard Beach, she points out.
“That was a really positive outcome,” she says.
Eckman now jokes that she had sat through so many meetings by the time she got elected to the select board for the first time in 2008 that all she was really doing was “getting a more comfortable seat.”
The cry for town water grew loud when high levels of 1,4-Dioxane, a contaminant the EPA classified as likely to be carcinogenic to humans, were found in residents’ wells near the landfill in 2012. Eckman waded into a multi-year slugfest on adopting a municipal water system that cost $114 million. The plan passed at an Eastham town meeting in 2014.
Eckman made the presentations on the water system at town meetings. According to her PowerPoint software, which tracks the time spent on slide shows, she worked on them for nearly 1,000 hours, she says.
“Aimee stepped up where we needed help; she is a good speaker and understands the issues,” said Sheila Vanderhoef, the now-retired town administrator who presided over the water system win. “She was a good and steady advocate.”
Born and reared in Little Falls, Wisc. with the Mississippi River as her back yard, Eckman served for seven years in the U.S. Army. Afterwards she had no desire to return to the conservative politics of Little Falls, so she moved to Portland, Ore., where she met Stevens. The pair moved to Eastham when Stevens’s parents needed care. They now live in a house built in 1750, where they reared their daughter, Emma. Eckman calls herself “a stay-at-home carpenter.”
In 2014, Eckman took a break — sort of. Instead of serving on the select board, she went to work on the finance committee and the capital projects committee, focusing on the new library, which opened in 2016. The modern structure with a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Depot Pond is a jewel in Eastham’s crown.
Eckman returned to the select board in 2017 and has served two more terms. Both she and incumbent Art Autorino are running for re-election without challengers so far.
“There is not much willingness for anyone to run,” Eckman says. But that’s just one more thing she’d like to see change. She is always recruiting.
Eckman reeled in Jamie Demetri after seeing “she had the right temperament and was a very effective citizen advocate.”
Demetri, who is now the select board chair, says she is happy that Eckman is running again. “When your peers are like Aimee Eckman, things happen,” Demetri says.